Unlike Europe, the USA does not have centuries of feudal history to encourage the construction of castles. Nor does it benefit from the various tall tales and legends that give these ancient citadels their rich legacies. Despite this, in terms of sheer beauty American castles can rival the best that the Old World has to offer. From the brooding Boldt Castle in upstate New York, to Hearst Castle standing sentry over coastal California, to the majestic Biltmore of Asheville, these all-American strongholds are proud reminders that while Europe may still claim the best architecture in the world, the USA is no slouch.
This article has absolutely nothing to do with those castles. Let’s look at the forgotten fortresses of America and the remarkable origins behind them.
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Hidden in the forested mountains of Custer County, Colorado lies an inspiring testament to one man’s dedication and a nearly insurmountable challenge for those of us who fear heights.
Bishop Castle Exterior. Photo by Dave Soldano on Flickr (cc)
Bishop Castle (see map) is the life’s work of Jim Bishop, an ornamental ironworker turned castle constructor. The castle began as a much tamer project to build a family cabin in the mountains to spend summers. Bishop’s imagination, prompted by remarks from his neighbors that he appeared to be building a castle, soon took over. Once the cabin was finished, he just kept building. The castle has been an ongoing project for nearly 60 years now, and the story behind each new addition is incredible.
Bishop Castle has grown to include a massive cathedral, a series of turrets and towers connected by an intricate network of spiral staircases and rickety iron bridges, and a fire-breathing dragon (for real). The towers stand in flagrant and proud defiance of any zoning laws or architectural safety regulations, and certain walkways are entirely exposed to the elements without any railings in sight. The tallest point of the castle reaches a staggering 160 feet, and the mountains are blustery more often than not, making exploration of the castle an adrenaline junkie’s dream – and a timid traveler’s worst nightmare.
The entirety of the castle is free and open to the public, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice. I was brave enough to conquer the castle’s highest points the first time – not so much the second time, with a storm rolling in!
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Another one-man project with a far more mysterious past lies in the southeastern corner of the country. The Coral Castle of Homestead, Florida (see map) has intrigued visitors since before its completion in 1951.
The castle, which was built by a Latvian immigrant named Ed Leedskalnin over the course of 28 years, is less traditional than Bishop Castle (using the loosest definition of traditional). It is more of an elaborate sculpture garden surrounded by castle walls, containing sculptures weighing up to 28 tons and made entirely from coral and rock from the surrounding areas. One of the castle’s signatures is its 9-ton coral gate that still swings with the slightest touch.
Interior of the “castle” via Google Streetview
The story behind the castle is the stuff urban legends are made of. Leedskalnin, who built his palace as a monument to a lost love, chose his location for its remoteness at the time and worked exclusively by night. As if by magic, this one man moved car-sized chunks of coral all on his own, often balancing them precariously on one another. To this day, no one knows the exact methods that Leedskalnin used to complete his castle. Theories range from the kooky (using magnets to create a perpetual motion machine), to the astrological, to the straight up supernatural. No matter what his methods were, it is nothing short of miraculous that this castle exists in nearly perfect condition, nearly 70 years after its completion.
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If the Coral Castle is a monument to love lost, then Arizona’s Mystery Castle is love personified. The castle hugs the mountains on the south outskirts of Phoenix (see map), and has 18 rooms as well as thirteen fireplaces. It is a bittersweet showcase of the lengths a father will go to for his daughter.
Art by Michael & Sherry Martin on Flickr (cc)
The Mystery Castle’s creator was a dying man named Boyce Gulley. Originally from Seattle, Gulley moved to the warm climate of Arizona in secret after being diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis, leaving his family for fear of infecting them. Once settled in, he set about building his daughter Mary Lou the castle she had always fantasized about. He made do with the sparse materials he had on hand – those familiar with the castle claim he even used goat’s milk as mortar.
Boyce died in 1945, before he could install electricity or plumbing in the castle. His wife and daughter Mary Lou had not heard from him in 18 years. Upon his death, Mary Lou received a letter begging for his forgiveness and telling her of her own personal castle in the desert. Mary Lou and her mother went down to live in Boyce’s labor of love, and Mary Lou herself faithfully offered tours of her home to carry on her father’s legacy until her death in 2010.
The full story behind the Mystery Castle is captivating, heartbreaking, and incredibly beautiful. I recommend everyone read it; you’ll walk away with a newfound appreciation for the capacity of a parent’s love.
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All of the previous castles have stemmed from a single person’s ambition, determination, and skill. They are towering beacons of the power of persistence and love. So, it’s only fitting that the most visited castle on this list has nothing to do with those things, and is instead a giant ode to corn.
The Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota (see map) is actually the oldest of the castles on this list; its current iteration was finished in 1921. Of course, the building itself is made of traditional construction materials – a proper fortress has to stand the test of time, after all. What makes the palace unique is its corny exterior decoration. The palace is always covered head to toe with multicolored ears of corn. The design changes with each harvest, and is centered around a massive mural covering the palace’s largest wall. The result is an eye-catching mashup of colorful crops that radiates from downtown, luring curious tourists from interstate 90.
Corn Palace 2017. Photo by Paul Rosemeyer on Flickr (cc)
This farmer’s Taj Mahal is 100% a local effort. From the actual growing of the corn to the design of the mural to the decorating process, dozens of residents are involved in the upkeep of the Corn Palace. It’s quite the point of town pride, and has put Mitchell on the map for road trippers desperate for a respite from the endless prairie.
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